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I Survived the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Here’s What I Learned.

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Rollins chapter.

I was born in the United States to a Colombian father and Guatemalan mother. When I was turning four-years-old, my family moved to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, due to their job at the time in the United Nations. My childhood was a happy one, but I did endure a traumatic event that affects me and millions of people to this day.

I was only eight-years-old, on January 12, 2010, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake took place in Haiti. Within 35 seconds, half of my home was in ruins. My sister who was only three-years-old, Andrea Natalia, and my nanny at the time, Jesula, were with me at home and we ended up trapped under the rubble. Jesula struggled to open the main entrance door of our apartment, because remains of a wall were blocking it. I remember it all so vividly, yet it was also a blur.

After many attempts, Jesula was able to open the door with remains pushed aside. When we got to our floor’s hallway, the emergency stairs were still intact and seemed like our only way out. When we attempted to open it, the door had bars and was locked. We suddenly saw a man running down the emergency stairs, we yelled “Anmwe!” The former means a desperate cry for help in Creole. We asked if he could help us open the door and he said he could not and apologized. He hurried downstairs and about a minute later, the aftershock started.

The stairs that had been in front of us, turned into ruins and we no longer had sight of the man. I never found out if he left the building by the time the aftershock started, or if he passed away when it happened. I suffer from Survivor’s Guilt, and that is when a person feels guilty for having survived a life-threatening situation when others died. Nothing else has haunted me more in the past decade than wondering what happened to him. There are just no words to describe how sick I feel to my stomach still thinking about it today.

Once the aftershock ended, we suddenly saw the door of another apartment in the hallway open, it was less damaged than our apartment. Coincidentally, it was the apartment of one of my parents’ coworkers, but he was not home. When we got to his balcony, we saw a guard outside. How the building was positioned after the earthquake, it seemed we were jumping from a second or third floor to the ground. For expert jumpers, that may not seem so bad, but for an eight-year-old, it sure was terrifying. I did not have shoes on, only socks. And Jesula was completely barefoot, but somehow we jumped. Jesula jumped with my sister in her arms.

In tears and in panic, I asked the guard if he knew of a man that had exited the building right before the aftershock. I hoped he had left the emergency stairs before the aftershock, but if he did not, we needed an emergency team to help him right away. I could tell the guard was confused and could barely process anything, just like the rest of us. There were countless people dead or stuck under the rubble in the buildings in our area owned by a hotel named Hotel Montana. No rescue teams were there right away, we all felt so powerless.

When we got to the street surrounding Hotel Montana, I saw that the world around us was in chaos. Rubble everywhere and I could smell death wherever I turned. Parts of bodies were sticking out of the rubble, some were able to be pulled out alive by civilians and some had been determined or assumed dead. I also spent the entire afternoon and almost all night crying, having multiple panic attacks, wondering what had happened to my parents when they were on their way home from work during the earthquake. Roads were blocked, no one in Port-au-Prince could get anywhere. Phone calls were not going through, the capital was experiencing such communication failures that people could not call emergency services or their families.

The earthquake happened at 4:53 PM, and it was not until midnight that my sister and I were reunited with our parents. I have never felt such relief and happiness like when I saw my parents alive that night. When I look back at it, I am absolutely sure this was a miracle. My home turned into ruins with my sister, nanny and I inside, but we were able to get out without a single scratch. There is no other way to describe it, it was a miracle by God.

The earthquake brought to light the privileges certain groups have, including myself. Instead of seeing efforts from the government to help the community get back on its feet, only the interests of the bourgeoisie were upheld. Those living in extreme poverty after the earthquake, struggling to recover from so much loss, were simply overlooked. Witnessing natural disasters, corruption, socioeconomic inequality and discrimination as a child and then teenager, made it easy to feel frustrated and powerless. But I went on to realize that rather than validating that powerless feeling, I could engage in collective action which actually makes a difference.

I moved back to Haiti later on in life and often volunteered in my community by gathering essentials to donate to orphanages and women’s centers. I realized feeling guilty for having survived did nothing but take a toll on my mental health. I had to approach things differently. I am blessed enough to have gotten a second chance at life, an opportunity to help the country I grew up in and hold close to my heart. I am going to be transparent and admit that Survivor’s Guilt is still a big issue in my life, but it is not as bad as it was years ago. Healing takes time, but at least I am healing.

Vanessa Martinez is the former Editor-in-Chief of Her Campus magazine at Rollins College, Winter Park, FL. She also contributed to the chapter's written publications and content creation from 2020 until 2024. Beyond Her Campus, Vanessa majored in Political Science at Rollins and is now pursuing an LLM in International Law During her free time, Vanessa enjoys reading books of all genres and traveling any chance she gets.